December: The Grand Prix Final
Dev reached for his partner’s hand, and he and Bailey glided onto the ice wearing matching bullshit smiles as a voice announced: “In second, and winners of the silver medal, representing the United States of America—Bailey Robinson and Dev Avira!”
Thunderous applause filled the arena, and flashbulbs popped as they took their bows and waved to the cheering Japanese crowd. Dev wished he could soak in their love and choke down the acid bitterness currently lodged somewhere around his sternum.
Smiles still firmly in place, he and Bailey hopped onto the carpet surrounding the podium where the gold medalists waited in all their sequined and red-feathered glory. Leave it to the Russians to make their Firebird costumes as literal as possible. Kisa Kostina, not a bleached-blonde hair out of place, beamed as she bent to air-kiss Bailey’s cheeks.
Dev’s jaw clenched as he shook Mikhail Reznikov’s hand. He hated himself for the skitter of electricity when their eyes and palms met. Mikhail’s lips curved briefly into an approximation of a smile. At thirty-one, with his short dark brown hair sweeping over his forehead, his steel-blue eyes, his broad shoulders and lean, tall body, and his truly spectacular ass, he was stupidly handsome.
Dev and Kisa exchanged air-kisses before he helped Bailey step onto the second tier of the podium. He took his place behind her and waved again to the audience while the third-place Canadians skated out to take their bows, followed by more air-kisses and handshakes. Although Dev and Bailey genuinely liked the Canadian team, this ritual was so painfully fake. They were all here to win, and there was only one satisfied team on the podium.
And satisfied the Russians certainly were. With his regal air, Mikhail was one of the most pompous, egotistical people Dev had ever met. He was the king of the pairs world, and he damn well knew it. Sharp-eyed Kisa was the ice queen, and together they were a perfect, humorless match. They kept to themselves off the ice, always civil but never friendly.
How Dev would love to see Mikhail Reznikov brought to his knees. He ignored the flare of desire in his belly at the other implications of that thought and refocused his attention on his resentment of Mikhail’s place on the podium.
The Grand Prix Final was the last international competition before they all returned home for their national championships in late December and into January. Olympic teams would be determined, and then on to the Games in Annecy in February. Since he was seven, Dev had dreamed of winning Olympic gold. He was so close he could taste it.
The officials presented flowers and medals, and Dev played his jovial part. Being on the podium here meant they were among the best of the best, yet the silver medal hung around his neck like an albatross. He knew he should be grateful for what he had, and proud of everything he and Bailey had accomplished. And he was. But second place wasn’t good enough.
He wanted to win.
As the all too familiar “Hymn of the Russian Federation” played, Dev watched the flags rise to the arena’s rafters. Just once, he wanted the Stars and Stripes to have the middle position. Sure, he and Bailey had won plenty of competitions. They had narrowly missed making the last Olympic team, and that disappointment had fueled them. They’d dominated American pairs skating ever since. Three-time national champions. Winners of multiple Grand Prix events—including Skate America, Skate Canada, NHK Trophy, and the Cup of China.
But they’d never beaten Kostina and Reznikov. Every time they faced the Russians, they came up short. They were the reigning world silver medalists, and even though they’d worked endlessly on their artistry and connection and edges and transitions—it was never enough.
It wasn’t as if the Russians weren’t good. Dev could admit they were amazing, particularly on the technical side. They were three-time world champions, and when they were on, they were unbeatable. But tonight Kisa had fallen on their throw Salchow and they’d lost unison on their side-by-side combination spins. Yet they still won by eight points. Eight! Sure, Bailey had put a hand down on their side-by-side triple toes, but it was a minor error. It felt like the judges had decided Kostina/Reznikov were the winners before any of the pairs even stepped on the ice.
The crowd cheered as the anthem ended, and all the skaters squeezed onto the top of the podium for photographs. At five-ten, Dev wasn’t the biggest of the male pairs skaters, but tiny Bailey only reached his shoulder. Mikhail stood a good three inches taller beside him, because of course he had to be better in absolutely everything. Dev grinned for the photographers and held up his silver medal as he fantasized about elbowing Mikhail off the back of the podium.
The torture continued as the teams posed for more photographs on the ice with their flags. Then it was time to circle the rink for a victory lap. Dev and Bailey stopped to hug a few fans, including Amaya and Reiko, two young women who attended almost every competition around the world. Dev had no idea how they afforded it, but he was always grateful to see them in the stands.
Reiko handed him a stuffed elephant. The elephant was the state animal of Kerala, the Southern Indian state where his parents had grown up before immigrating to the US, where Dev was born. He’d mentioned once in an interview that his good-luck charm was a tiny elephant pendant carved from jade that he wore during every competition on a silver chain, hidden beneath his costumes.
Ever since, fans had given him elephants in every imaginable form, from dolls to statues to goofy hats. He loved every single one, and his mother collected them in what she called the Elephant Room back home in Belmont in the Boston suburbs.
He kissed Reiko’s cheek. “Thank you, sweetheart. Hope we’ll see you in Annecy?”
She bounced. “Oh yes! We would not miss this. And we love new costumes!”
“Glad to hear it!” Dev grinned.
After NHK they’d scrapped their initial costumes, which didn’t quite capture the darkly romantic tone of their Jane Eyre long program—officially called the free skate—set to the score from the 2011 film. Now Dev wore navy trousers and a button-down silk shirt with a simple white cravat, while Bailey’s navy dress with delicate white embroidery at her wrists and around her neck perfectly set off her auburn hair, which she wore twisted into a braid wrapped around a knot. Dev had grown his thick black hair a little on top, where it curled in what he liked to think was a rakish fashion.
Reiko’s smile gave way to a frown. “The results not correct. You and Bailey are true winners today. Everyone thinks this.”
Amaya nodded vigorously.
“Thanks, guys. We love you!” Bailey gave them another hug before they skated on.
After yet more photos, they finally escaped backstage. Their coach, Louise Webber, walked them to the dressing rooms. Louise had been a pairs skater herself in her youth, although she’d never gone past the national level. Now in her forties, she was still in amazing shape, which she attributed to her “Asian genes.” There wasn’t a streak of gray in her short black hair, and while she often said Bailey and Dev would give her wrinkles when they didn’t follow instructions to her satisfaction, none were in evidence.
Dev just wanted to get back to the hotel, but there was still the mandatory press conference to contend with. “Is this over yet?”
“You did your job out there. The rest of it is out of your hands. I’m proud of you.” Louise gave them both a squeeze. “Don’t let it get to you.”
“I’m not. It’s fine. I’m fine,” Dev insisted.
Bailey snorted. “Uh-huh.” She patted his hip before disappearing into the women’s dressing room. “See you in a few.”
Of the six teams that qualified to compete at the Grand Prix Final, the three who didn’t make it to the podium were long gone. In the men’s dressing room, the Canadian, Roger Jackman, was already zipping up his hoodie and stuffing his feet into his sneakers.
“Hey, man. I gotta call my wife back home. The baby’s due any minute now and I want to catch her tonight before it’s too late. Or early. I’m so fucked-up with this time change. Don’t rush getting changed, okay? I need a few extra minutes. See you in the press room.”
“Sure, no problem.” Dev held out his fist. “Great skate tonight.”
Roger bumped him back. “You too.” He shrugged. “What are you gonna do, right?”
As Mikhail strode in, Roger hurried out, tapping his cell phone. Dev sat on a bench and unlaced his skates. From the corner of his eye, he watched Mikhail peel off his black bodysuit festooned with shimmers of burnt orange and red. Several feathers floated to the tile floor. Underneath he wore a black tank top and boxer briefs that clung to his narrow hips and muscular thighs.
Swallowing hard, Dev quickly stripped off his costume and transferred it to a garment bag. Wearing dark boxer briefs as well, he reached for his track pants, but found his attention drawn back to Mikhail. The arena’s locker room had been gussied up with several wardrobe racks and a bank of makeup tables with mirrors and chairs. Still in his underwear, Mikhail went to one of the mirrors and leaned close.
The ego on this guy. It wasn’t bad enough that Mikhail had to always win—did he have to parade around the dressing room half-naked? Still, Dev had to swallow hard as traitorous desire seared in him. Mikhail steadily met his gaze in the mirror, and Dev jerked his head away, cheeks hot. Stupid! The last thing he needed was to get caught lusting after this asshole.
“Don’t worry, your guyliner isn’t smudged,” he snarked before glancing over.
In the mirror, Mikhail’s brow furrowed, but he said nothing and pulled a lash from his eye.
For some reason this refusal to engage lit a fuse to the anger simmering in Dev’s gut. “You know, you could lighten up once in a while. We get it, you’re an artiste. So tortured and…Russian. With your flailing arms and your nines for Performance and Execution even though you just go through the motions. You always get nines, and I bet you did tonight, despite Kisa cleaning the ice with her ass on that throw. You guys even fall artistically according to the judges.”
Mikhail straightened and faced Dev. His gaze raked down Dev’s body and back up. Nostrils flaring, he asked, “You have a problem?” His accent was fairly thick, but his earlier years training in Connecticut gave him a strong command of English. “Talk to the judges. We don’t control them.”
Dev barked out a laugh and took a step closer. “We both know your federation has the judges in its pocket. Skating has always been about politics, and no matter what scoring system they bring in—it always will be.” He shook his head. “Why am I even getting into this?” he muttered, more to himself than Mikhail. He headed toward the bathroom. “Forget it.”
Mikhail stood unmoving, and maybe Dev meant to get a little too close and knock his shoulder. But he definitely didn’t intend to end up slammed into a locker with Mikhail gripping his arms, his eyes blazing and face twisted. Dev’s skin burned where Mikhail touched him.
“You think it’s so easy for us? You know nothing. Nothing!”
Dev shoved against Mikhail’s chest, but he didn’t budge. Fingers curling in Mikhail’s tank top, Dev struggled to focus when he wanted so much to rip the cotton away and feel Mikhail’s pale skin. “Cry me a river! You win everything just by showing up. You could drag Kisa around by her hair for four and a half minutes and you’d be golden.”
“Poshel na hui,” Mikhail spat.
Dev had been around Russians long enough to translate. He gritted his teeth. “Fuck you too.”
Their harsh breathing filled the air, fingers digging into each other’s skin, bodies so close and—
They were kissing, mouths open and teeth clashing, tongues battling as they rutted together. The metal of the locker was cold against Dev’s back, but everything else was fire—desire pumping through his veins, and the unstoppable urge to get closer, closer, closer. He moaned raggedly as his brain tried to connect with his body.
What am I doing? Stop!
His body ignored him, and he spread his legs as Mikhail jammed his thigh between them. They were both already hard in their underwear, and Mikhail groaned as Dev grabbed his ass and ground their hips together. Dev hated him so much, but he couldn’t stop touching. His hands roamed over the hard angles of Mikhail’s body, and he panted into wet, messy kisses. Mikhail clutched Dev’s hips and thrust their cocks together.
Anyone could walk in. Stop! I hate him! Wrong, wrong, wrong!
The scattered snippets of thought only made his pulse roar louder, and his balls tightened already, his body desperate for the release. They jerked together, and Dev could only give in to the madness that had taken over.
When Dev’s orgasm ripped through him, his shout was muffled by Mikhail’s palm slapping over his mouth. Mikhail hunched over as he rubbed against Dev in a frenzy, his quiet little gasps warm and wet against Dev’s neck. He came silently, shuddering with the pulses of his release. Dev’s body hummed with aftershocks, and he closed his eyes, breathing hard through his nose since Mikhail’s hand still covered his mouth.
Then the heat vanished, and Dev opened his eyes. Mikhail backed up across the dressing room, shaking his head slowly, eyes wide. Dev was frozen in place against the locker, his briefs sticky, and his arms hanging at his sides. They stared at each other as the seconds ticked by.
“Gentlemen?” a man’s voice called, accompanied by a sharp knock on the door. “We’re ready for you in the media room.”
They leaped into action, yanking on clean underwear, street clothes, and shoes in a blur of movement, not meeting each other’s eyes. Dev made it out first, and he smiled and made his apologies to the officials, following them to the press room. Sweaty and sticky and in desperate need of a shower, he tugged on his fleece and felt exposed even though it wasn’t as if there were wet spots on his track pants.
In the press room, the other skaters sat behind a long table on a raised dais. Kisa waited in the middle with the Canadians on her left and Bailey her right, everyone seated in their medal positions. On the rows of chairs in front of the table, the media, coaches, and various event and federation officials waited. Dev avoided looking any of them in the eye as he took his seat.
He couldn’t avoid his partner, and he smiled in what he hoped was a low-key, completely normal way. His mouth felt raw. Jesus, do I have beard burn? Bailey’s brows knitted together, and she reached up and straightened his hair. Shit. His hair.
Everyone knows! It’s flashing all over me in neon letters. Neon and all caps!
Breathing deeply, he struggled to unscrew the cap from the bottle of water placed on the table in front of him. It took two tries, but he got it, and gulped. His heart pounded so loudly he was sure everyone could hear it.
“Everything okay?” Bailey murmured.
Under the table, she squeezed his thigh. “We’re almost there. Just think—tomorrow we leave Kyoto and get to sleep in our own beds again. At least for a few weeks.”
With a rush of affection, he took her hand. If there was one thing he could count on, it was having Bailey beside him. He exhaled and concentrated on her familiar warmth.
Mikhail entered the room, head high and shoulders back, his hair artfully swooped over his forehead. He managed to make warm-up pants and his red Russian team jacket look like Armani. Expression calm, he took his seat next to Kisa. While Dev wanted to crawl out of his skin with a mess of emotions from shock and anger to a shameful craving for more, Mikhail Reznikov appeared utterly unaffected.
Dev had never hated him more.